Transamerica by Juan A. Tarancón

In your own voice.

Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005)

By Juan A. Tarancón


The story behind Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica (2005) may not be too original but, in a world of prequels, sequels and off-shots, it can’t be said to be too conventional either: when pre-op transsexual Bree (Felicity Huffman) seems to be ready to enter the operating theatre and take the genital surgery that will transform what is left of Stanley Osbourne into a woman, a disturbing phone call from an unheard-of son that has been arrested for possession throws her wavering sexual self-assurance into a turmoil. Both willing and unable to put the phone call behind her, she informs Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), the psychologist in charge of her case, of the mysterious call, and Margaret refuses to grant Bree the favorable legal report she needs to undergo gender reassignment surgery until she confronts her past. Bree reluctantly flies from Los Angeles to New York, bails her son out of a detention center pretending she is a Christian missionary, and both embark on a road trip during which Bree hopes to find a solution to this new obstacle and get back to Los Angeles in time for the operation.  


And so begins a travel narrative that brings to the fore one of Hollywood’s most characteristic genres: the road movie. But in Transamerica the road does not offer the kind of liberation from hegemonic norms that it has repeatedly offered the western hero. On the contrary, Bree’s sexuality is critically threatened as a result of this unexpected cross-country road trip. The road movie genre has traditionally represented the conflict between the social order and individual freedom; and its narrative logic suited the traditional western hero all right, as it offered men a possibility to liberate home-based masculinity and to challenge dominant discourses of family, home, sexuality, and employment. In the recent past the Hollywood road has been feminized and even transvestited, thus exploiting its potential to challenge the gender solidity of the country as it was being rendered in other film genres. But Bree is launched into the road to conform and to assume responsibility for a son (that is, a family) whom she didn’t know existed. The road is not liberatory for Bree as it is for Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934), for Billy and Wyatt in Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), or for the eponymous heroines of Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), and compels Bree to weigh up her nascent sexual identity in some very specific terms.


When the film opens Bree is, literally, trying to find her own voice with the use of a self-help audio tape. In the first scenes of the film her sexuality is primarily defined through her attire and her make-up, with an emphasis on the degree to which her identity is a masquerade built upon denial and exclusion (of her family, as the spectator will soon find out). And it seems that this is the femaleness that is threatened in the course of the film. The dramatic turning point in this narrative logic occurs when Bree and Toby are robbed by a hitchhiker that Toby, upset by the discovery that her female companion had a schlong, insisted on taking. The fellow traveler steals their car and, with it, Bree’s hormones and make-up, and the ever-present overnight case that so far seemed a repository of Bree’s sexual identity. It is then that Bree is forced to abandon the farce she got herself into and to renegotiate her identity beyond the costume, the make-up and the hormones, and to take upon herself the more tragic awareness that lies beyond all the superficial drag. It is then that she decides to go to Phoenix and inform everybody in her family, including her unaware son, of her situation.


The road trip from New York to Arizona grants Bree and Toby new ways of experiencing their social estrangement. But don’t misinterpret my words, the film does not focus on formulaic homophobic experiences in rural USA. Quite the opposite, it offers an off-center awareness of present reality through that which is different or simply bizarre. The road movie genre has always been essentially about difference (a trait that Steven Cohan calls “the hospitability of the road to the marginalized and alienated”). Besides, this has been one of the founding and defining thematic characteristics of one branch of independent cinema: the presentation of a society that is valuable to the extent that it is capable of engendering diversity and, why not, weirdness.


Finally, it is the return home that characterizes the journey; the road provides the escape from home and leads inevitably back home. At the end Bree and Toby are assimilated into society through employment and through immobile sexuality in the lifeless sitting-room of Bree’s gloomy house, but the ending far from integrating identity and social order, leaves the dialectic between the two wide open.


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